Her head suddenly heavy, Io looked down at her hooves. Moments earlier, Zeus had caressed her shapely — decidedly not bovine — form. Like so many of her nymph sisters the world over, Io simply couldn’t resist the king of gods.
She knew the risks. Hera, his wife, had a habit of showing up at inopportune times, leaving a trail of cursed adultresses and coconspirators in her wake. And now here she was.
Really, Zeus — a cow? He could’ve transformed her into anything. A graceful swan. An eagle. But a white heifer? That hurt.
Oh, no. Here she comes, Io thought, lowering her head.
Hera stepped forward, glared at Zeus, and then at her. Io could tell by the look in her eyes, she wasn’t buying it. What would Zeus be doing with a cow?
Io’s stomach clenched. This wouldn’t end well.
She dipped her tongue into the river at her feet, and lapped at the water, trying to act the part. How did cows drink anyway?
Her ear turned to the conversation, dreading what she might hear. A quiver shook her hide as she waited for the axe to fall.
Hera’s voice was cold. “Zeus, husband. Who do we have here?”
Io forced herself not to look.
“To whom do you refer, dear? The white heifer?”
Silence. Never a good sign. Io began to sweat through her hide. She stopped licking at the stream. She couldn’t swallow anyway.
“Get back to Olympus, Zeus. There are urgent matters to attend to,” Hera said.
There was only one god who could get away with issuing a command to the king of gods and she was standing right there.
“I’ll be along shortly,” he said.
“Now. Unless there are matters here that demand your attention. The white heifer, perhaps?”
He was trapped — faced with admitting his indiscretion versus leaving her in her new form to face Hera. It didn’t take him long to decide.
“Fine. I’ll go.”
With an ear splitting crack, he was gone.
Io didn’t move. Maybe if she prayed hard enough, Hera would let her live — not that that was such a great prize. She was a cow. Wasn’t that punishment enough?
Finally, Hera spoke. “Do you think me an imbecile?”
Io turned to face her. Shamed. Penitent. Sorry.
“You nymphs just can’t keep your filthy hands off my husband, can you? You shall serve as an example to the others. I see Zeus has already done half the job for me, you fat, lumbering cow. You may live as such, with my blessing.”
Hera uttered a hex of some kind. Io flinched at a sharp pinch on her hindquarters.
“And that is my blessing,” Hera said. “This stinging gadfly shall be your constant companion, to remind you of your folly. Now, be gone.”
Io lumbered away, feeling the welt of the first sting swell as it pinched again.
Epilogue (from the Greek legends):
Io roamed the earth for many years, tormented by the stinging gad fly. At a particularly low point, nearly driven mad, she came across Prometheus, bound to a rock at the shores of the black sea. An eagle was forever eating out his liver — punishment from Zeus for giving man fire.
Despite his pain, Prometheus was kind to Io, assuring her that she wouldn’t remain a heifer forever. Someday she’d be transformed back to human and be part of the ancestry of a great hero, Hercules.
Eventually, Io did escape across the Ionian Sea to Egypt where Zeus transformed her back to human. Both the Ionian sea and the Bosporus are named after the legend of Io. (The Greek translation for Bosporus means cattle-passage, or cow passage, where Io crossed the strait before meeting up with Prometheus.)